Dining in a church

A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.

The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:

“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”

The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.

Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.

King Richard III and more

SEEN FROM ACROSS THE THAMES at Battersea Park, it looks like a Tudor palace in immaculate condition on the opposite bank of the river. But do not be fooled because much of Crosby Hall, the edifice you can see from the riverside at Battersea, was built between 1910 and about 1926.  Part of the building is far older, dating back to mediaeval times and it was moved from the heart of the City to its present location in Chelsea in 1910. Let me explain, please.

In 1466, Sir John Crosby, alderman and a sheriff of London, built his mansion, Crosby Place, on land just east of Bishopsgate, leased to him by the Prioress St Helens Bishopsgate, a church nearby.  After Crosby died in 1475/6, Crosby Place was owned by the Duke of Gloucester (1452-1485), who was to become King Richard III, of Shakespearian fame.  John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published in 1855) suggests that in 1598, Shakespeare had lodgings close to Crosby Place. In Act 1, scene 2 of his play, Richard, Duke of Gloucester says:

“And presently repair to Crosby House;

Where (after I have solemnly interr’d

At Chertsey monast’ry this noble king,

And wet his grave with my repentant tears)

I will with all expedient duty see you.

For diverse unknown reasons, I beseech you,

Grant me this boon.”

Writing in 1603 in his “The Survey of London”, John Stow (1524/25-1605) noted:

“Then you have one great house called Crosby place, because the same was built by Sir John Crosby, grocer and Woolman … This house he built of stone and timber, very large and beautiful, and the highest at that time in London … he was buried in St Helen’s, the parish church…”

Stow also recorded that in the late 16th century several ambassadors lived in the house.

The fourth owner of Crosby Place was the senior government official, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), whose head was removed at the Tower of London after disagreements with his ‘boss’, King Henry VIII. It has been suggested by Timbs that More wrote his books “Utopia” (1516) and “History of Richard the Third” (1512-1519) whilst residing at Crosby Place. In 1523, More sold Crosby Place to his friend, the banker and merchant Antonio Bonvisi (died 1558) from Lucca in Italy. Interestingly, More moved to his house in Chelsea after leaving Crosby Place. His riverside home, the former Beaufort House was a few yards away from the present Crosby Hall.

The ownership of Crosby Place changed several times after More sold it. Sir Walter Raleigh lived there in 1601. Between 1621 and 1638, the Place was home to the East India Company (founded 1600). Soon after 1642, fire struck the property, and it was never again used as a residence. The conflagration spared the great hall, which became known as Crosby Hall. During the Civil War, it was used as a prison for Royalists. In 1672, it was converted into a Presbyterian meeting house, and was used as such until 1769. Next, the hall was used as a packer’s warehouse. The packer’s lease expired in 1831. Following that and public concern about its condition, the hall was restored in about 1836. Timbs noted that it was:

“… the finest example in the metropolis of the domestic mansion Perpendicular work … The glory of the place is, however, the roof which is an elaborate architectural study, and decidedly one of the finest examples of timber-work in existence. It differs from many other examples in being an inner roof…”

From Timbs’s detailed description, it sounds as if it was a spectacular creation.

Following its restoration, Crosby Hall became used for musical performances and as a meeting place for literary societies. In 1868, Crosby Hall became a restaurant. The Hall was sold to the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China in 1907. The bank wanted to destroy what was one of the oldest buildings in the City of London, one of the few survivors of the Great Fire of 1666. These plans caused a public outcry. In 1910, the Hall was dismantled and moved stone by stone to its present site in Chelsea, opposite Battersea Park. There, it was reassembled and Tudor-style additions, designed by the architect Walter Godfrey (1881-1961) were constructed.

During WW1, the relocated and enlarged Crosby Hall was used to house refugees from war-torn Belgium. Between 1925 and 1968, the Hall was leased by the British Federation of University Women. Following the anti-Jewish laws passed by the Nazis in 1933, Crosby Hall provided residential fellowships for Jewish women academics who had fled from Hitler’s Germany. After 1988, Crosby Hall became a private residence (www.christophermoran.org/news/crosby-hall-the-most-important-surviving-domestic-medieval-building-in-london/).

Close to the relocated Crosby Hall there is a statue of Sir Thomas More, seated and looking across the Thames. This statue is appropriately located between what is left of his old home, which used to be in Bishopsgate, and the land on which his Chelsea mansion used to stand. One day, I hope that I will be able to see the superb hammer beam roof in Crosby Hall. I wonder how it compares with the wonderful example that can be seen in Middle Temple Hall, in which Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was first performed in 1602.

Burgers and the Parthenon

THE HARD ROCK CAFÉ at 150 Old Park Lane in central London opened its doors to customers in June 1971. It has been a popular eatery and tourist attraction ever since then. Often, a queue of hungry customers can be seen at its doors. I ate an enjoyable meal there once soon after it opened. I was then an undergraduate at University College London. Since then, I have not entered this place again. Some years ago, when the Hard Rock Café opened a branch in what had been the Tract and Bible Society bookstore in St Marks Road in Bangalore (India) in 2007, we had an indifferent meal there under the watchful eyes of a huge poster portrait of the singer Tina Turner.

Few of the customers of the Old Park Lane branch of this American-style diner in Old Park Lane are likely to have raised their heads to see what is above the eatery. It is worth doing so to see the:

“Bracketed cornice over 5th floor, shaped gable end to attic storeys finished off by giant broken segmental pediment with green brick banding and figure sculpture crowned by ornamental obelisk-finial.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1266274).

This green (and white brick) banding gives the building an eye-catching appearance. There is a crest between the two large bow windows on the fourth (American fifth) floor. This shield with three chevrons and ten circles bears the date ‘1907’.

The building, 149-150 Old Park Lane, was built in 1904 to the designs of the architects Thomas Edward Colcutt (1840-1924) and Stanley Hamp (1877-1968), who worked together as a partnership.  So far, so good, but what was the building used for when it was built and why did it deserve such an elaborate and unusual pediment? Various descriptions of its architecture describe that it consists of ‘flats and chambers’ above ‘a former showroom, now restaurant’. One source (www.foodepedia.co.uk/restaurant-reviews/2010/nov/hard_rock_cafe.htm) states that the Hard Rock is situated inside a former Rolls Royce showroom. This is confirmed by Anthony Knight, who wrote (on a restaurant development website):

“Two shaggy-haired Americans living in London were fed up with the fact they couldn’t find US-style burgers in the capital so they started a small burger joint in a Rolls-Royce dealership. In 1973 they hosted their first live gig, with the singer none other than Paul McCartney” (www.elliottsagency.com/opinion/greateststories/).

The brand name ‘Rolls Royce’ has been used since 1906. The building at 150 Old Park Lane was constructed two years earlier. I have not been able to ascertain when the luxury car company first opened their show room in the current premises of Hard Rock Café.

Looking up at the pediment, there is a sculpture of a kneeling muscular man supporting a sort of obelisk on which there are interlinked letters, which look like ‘D’, ‘J’, and lower-case ‘l’. What this stands for remains a mystery to me. However, the crest mentioned above, is identical to that on the coat-of-arms of the city of Gloucester (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp368-371). This is appropriate as the building is known as ‘Gloucester House’.

The building housing the Hard Rock Café is not the first edifice on this plot to have been named ‘Gloucester House’. According to the authoritative book edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, “The London Encyclopaedia”, the first Gloucester House, which like the present burger joint was located on the west corner of Old Park Lane and Piccadilly, was constructed in the early years of the reign of King George III (he was on the throne from 1760 to 1820). It was in this building that Lord Elgin (1766-1841) first exhibited the marble fragments that he had removed from the Parthenon in Athens. They were displayed here, where today burgers and milkshakes are consumed, before he sold the marbles to the nation in 1816. That year, Gloucester House was purchased by William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester (1776-1834), who despite being nicknamed ‘Silly Billy’ became Chancellor of Cambridge University. The last owner of the house was George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, who died in 1904. Soon after his death, the old house was demolished. It seems that its successor, the present Gloucester House, was built almost as soon as the old one was demolished.

In 1850, when the old Gloucester House was still in existence, Peter Cunningham wrote in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850):

“At the Duchess of Gloucester’s, at the corner of Park-Lane, once Lord Elgin’s, and where the Elgin Marbles were placed on their first arrival in this country, is a very beautiful carpet in sixty squares, worked by sixty of the principal ladies among the aristocracy.”

At that time, William Frederick’s widow, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1776-1857), who was born in Buckingham Palace, was residing at the house. After her death, the house was sold to its last owner.

It occurred to me that quite accidentally the Hard Rock Café with its main entrance on Piccadilly is aptly named given that it is located where some ‘rocks’ that occasionally give the British Government a hard time, The Elgin Marbles, were once housed.  What gives the precious ancient marbles a sort of hardness is that from time to time the Greek Government wants to have them back in Athens. So, next time you bite into a burger at Hard Rock in Gloucester House, spare a thought for the Greeks who have lost their marbles.

Is the duck ok?

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THERE WAS A LOVELY restaurant on the estuary of the River Medway in the 1980s. Once, I took a friend, ‘P’, to lunch there. We sat down, and a waitress brought us some slices of baguette. When the owner of the restaurant came to hand us the menus, P said:

“This bread is delicious.”

The owner replied:

“We get it freshly baked from France every day.”

We were impressed. P ordered duck and I ordered something else.

As soon as the restaurant’s owner disappeared, the waitress reappeared. She came to our table and said in a low voice:

“Actually, the bread comes from Tesco in Chatham.”

We became less impressed by the owner.

Our food arrived. It was more than satisfactory. As we were finishing, the restaurant’s owner came to our table. He asked P in a manner that reminded me of John Cleese on “Fawlty Towers”:

“Duck ok?”

“Delicious,” P replied.

“That’s good … we’ve had a few complaints about our duck today,” the owner said, wandering off nonchalantly.

Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill

 

Saturday night feeder

BRUGES 65 BLOG

MY LATE MOTHER trained at the Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. She became a commercial artist. After she married my father in London in early 1948, she became a more creative artist, a painter and then a sculptor. Her interest in art was shared by my father, who became deeply interested in the history of art. Most of our family holidays were connected with my parents’ enthusiasm for art both old and new. I used to be quite envious of my friends whose parents took them to the seaside, but now that I am older I appreciate the special nature of our family holidays.

One of the places my parents enjoyed visiting was Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium.  We used to stay in the city’s Hotel Portinari. Once every visit, we did something that I found more enjoyable than visiting churches and museums. We took a boat ride along the city’s canals. These tours involved travelling in a small low boat powered by an outboard motor. The most exciting part of this voyage was when we passed beneath a particularly low road bridge. The tour guide would tell us all to duck our heads. My mother, who saw danger around every corner, always  emphasised how important it was to lower our heads as much as possible to avoid them being smashed to a pulp by the metal struts under which we were passing. In retrospect, considering the potential for experiencing this awful injury (possibly leading to death), I am amazed that my mother sanctioned these boat trips every time we visited Bruges.

My mother passed away, I married and in 1995 our daughter was born. Six weeks after her birth, we crossed the English Channel and we took our daughter with us. We were driving to Rotterdam in Holland to meet my wife’s parents, who were disembarking there after a cruise on the River Rhine.

We wanted to spend a night in Bruges on our way to Holland, but were unable to find accommodation in a hotel that we could afford. Instead, we booked a hotel at nearby Damme, which was said to be picturesque.

We arrived at our hotel in Damme on a Saturday afternoon. I remember that we had trouble getting hot water to flow in our shower. However much the hot tap was turned, the water remained icy cold. The problem was solved when a member of the hotel staff explained that the taps had been labelled wrongly: hot water flowed when the cold tap was opened.

 In the evening, the three of us went to a restaurant in Damme. The dining room was a long rectangle in plan. A long central ‘aisle’ ran between two lines of tables. Each table was occupied by late middle-aged couples sitting  with their backs to the walls and facing the diners seated opposite them across the aisle. Not one of these people looked as if they were enjoying their night out, or even being alive. They were a miserable looking bunch.

We were shown to the one remaining empty table. Within minutes of sitting down, our daughter decided that she needed a drink, not of Belgian beer but something that only wife could supply.

My wife asked the maitre d’hôtel whether there was somewhere that she could breastfeed our daughter discreetly. He pointed at a door. My wife stood up and walked towards it. Before she reached it, the hitherto seemingly moribund diners sprang to life. They told us that they did not mind if our daughter suckled in the dining room. They did not want mother and child to be exiled, or even self-exiled.

For the rest of the evening, our fellow diners remained animated, exclaiming how sweet our daughter was and offering much advice. Our arrival and our daughter, in particular, had made that Saturday evening a huge success for these ageing members of Damme’s  bourgeoisie.

 

Picture of the Minnewater in Bruges, taken in the early 1960s

 

The Gay Hussar

THE USAGE OF THE WORD ‘GAY’ to refer to same sex relationships dates back to the 1960s.

Before this time, back in 1953, Victor Sassie opened a Hungarian restaurant in Greek Street in London’s Soho district. It closed a few years ago in 2018.

Apart from serving Hungarian specialities, the Gay Hussar was a popular meeting place for politicians.

My father was often invited to meet his colleague, friend, and occasional co-author the Hungarian born (Lord) Peter Bauer at the Gay Hussar. Dad was not too keen on the fare at the restaurant because he found it too rich and a bit heavy. I only ate there once. I thought that the cooking in Hungary was better than that on offer in Greek Street.

The Gay Hussar was not the only Hungarian eatery in Soho. The other was Csarda in Dean Street. This closed long before the Gay Hussar. It is one of my few minor regrets that I was never able to eat at the Csarda.

The ‘unearthing’ of an ashtray from the Gay Hussar is what prompted me to write about this no longer existing restaurant.

A powerful smell

Years ago, before the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, I was visiting Budapest in Hungary with my friend the author, the late Michael Jacobs (he wrote Budapest, A Cultural Guide, published in 1998). We decided to eat dinner in a large restaurant called the Kárpátia, which was founded in 1877 and is one of the city’s longest surviving eateries.

cheese

The dining hall was very spacious. Its decor is Victorian Gothic revival. Diners are serenaded by a small band. As far as I can remember we ate well, as was often the case in Communist Hungary. One could enjoy the restaurants in Budapest if you were a western tourist, but for most Hungarians, who were low paid, eating in fancy restaurants was way beyond their means.  I remember eating a magnificent lunch at another restaurant and paying less than £5 for a gargantuan spread. When I told my Hungarian hosts that I had been to that place to eat, they could not believe that I was able to afford it. I was going to tell them what good value it was, but held my tongue.

At the end of the meal at the Kárpátia , I decided to try a cheese, which I had never heard of  and was on the menu. It was called Pálpusztai. I ordered a portion, and waited. The doors to the kitchen were at the far end of the large room in which we were dining. Our table was as far from the kitchen as was possible. Before the waiter re-entered the dining hall, a strong pungent odour could be sensed. The smell filled the entire dining hall. It was my cheese. Michael was horrified that first, I was prepared to try it, and then, second, that I liked it. Actually, I like most pungent cheeses. 

Pálpusztai is a cow’s milk cheese, which was first made by Pál Heller of the Derby és Vajtermelő Cheese Company in the 1890s. According to Wikipedia, the bacterium, Brevibacterium linens, that gives the cheese its odour is the same as that found on human skin, which contributes to body odour. Maybe, it was lucky I did not know that when I was looking at the menu at the Kárpátia!

Rice and meat

Hyderabad is justifiably renowned for tasty biryani although the very best version of this rice based dish that I have ever eaten was at Paragon in Calicut. There, they serve Moplah biryanis, which are both Arabic and Indian in taste.

The biryani we ate at the Café Bahar in Hyderabad was delicious. It was delicately flavoured and cooked with a light touch. To enter Bahar at lunchtime it is necessary to join a long queue that extends from the top of tje stairs at the doorway to the first floor dining room down on to the busy street outside. It is worth the wait.

The restaurant itself is very noisy and as busy as London’s Oxford Circus at rush hour. We shared a table with a charming couple, who let us try their ‘double masala’ chicken biryani which is richly laden with extra spices. I preferred the less spicy ‘special lamb biryani’. It is made special by adding hard boiled egg and meatballs made with minced chicken.

One should not visit Hyderabad without eating at least one biryani, but avoid the much advertised Paradise restaurant chain, which is ok but nothing like as good as Bahar or Shadab (near the Charminar)

Sighting the high Himalayas

TODAY, WE WERE LUCKY. When we awoke at about 630 am, the sky was almost cloudless. There was no mist. We headed for breakfast at Bakers Café on MG Marg. We took a table by a window with a view of the hills that face Gangtok. To our great delight, we could see the snow covered slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga far beyond the nearer hills. Even though the great peak was partially obscured by clouds, we had managed to see it at last. Until 1853, this mountain was believed to be the highest on the planet. More accurate surveying showed it to be the third highest, K2 also known as Chhogori.

After breakfast, we strolled along MG Marg and then its continuation, New Market. At the far end of the latter, the hitherto fully built up thoroughfare began to be punctuated with greenery, trees and other plants.

After a short ascent, we reached the Ropeway station. It is the halfway point of s cable car service that runs from a much higher station to a far lower one. Currently, the service only runs from the midway station to the lowest one. We boarded one of the two red cable cars to make the descent. Unlike other cable cars I have been on, each cable car has its own cable instead of being on a continuous loop. When the car reaches a station, its driving cable reverses its direction of motion.

The views during the descent are dramatic. The usually tall buildings of Gangtok appear to have been built on step like terraces cut into the sides of the steep slopes of the terrain on which the city is situated. The cable car glides high above a winding road along which an unending stream of small local taxis flows. Looking left and right the tree covered hills surrounding the city offer exciting vistas. The return journey, the ascent, was less dramatic, but enjoyable nevertheless.

We dawdled back the way we had approached the cable car station, enjoying the warm sunshine. Many people were walking around including a significant number of police men and women carrying lathis and short sticks. Wearing berets and dark blue uniforms, they appeared to be milling around casually and without seeming menacing. Every now and then, we saw porters carrying what looked like heavy loads. They wear a thick padded strap over their foreheads. These straps are attached to cords that are tied around what is being carried on the porters’ backs. As they walk, the porters incline their heads slightly forward. This kind of portering looks like a tough way of earning a living.

The shops on MG Mar were open, but those lining the steps leading down to Lal Bazaar were shuttered up, closed. In Gangtok some businesses close on Thursday and others on Saturday. Today, it is Thursday. Fortunately, the excellent, albeit somewhat scruffy, Potala Restaurant in Lal Bazaar was open. I enjoyed a good number of delicately flavoured delicious beef filled steam momos.

After lunch we visited the Organic Market, which is housed in a curved gallery, one of the floors of the so-called Super Market, which is not a supermarket but a multi-storey covered market. Next, we strolled along some of the elevated pedestrian walkways that run above the National Highway, the main thoroughfare of Gangtok.

Before returning to our hotel, we stopped in a small café for beverages. It had a range of breads and pastries that equalled that you would expect to find in large European cities. This was not an isolated example. Gangtok abounds with well stocked bakeries.

The temperature had begun to drop when we reached our hotel, where we sttled down for a siesta.

PS We were fortunate to sight Kanchenjunga on the 28th November, the anniversary of the independence of Albania. Sadly, that country had just experienced a terrible earthquake.